Rothamsted Research scientists have welcomed the passing into law of new UK legislation that will free-up the use of gene-editing (GE) technologies.

Commenting on the significance of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act, Rothamsted’s chief executive, Prof. Angela Karp said:

“It will mean recent advances in gene-editing technologies will soon be contributing to a more sustainable and productive farming sector.

“We’ve already seen the huge benefits genome editing brings to areas such as medicine; it’s now time to apply the same sort of innovation, together with responsible regulation, to our food production.

“The new law will significantly speed up our ability to test enhanced crops in the field. With the triple threats of climate change, a burgeoning human population, and widespread biodiversity loss hanging over us, the sooner we can get more resilient, more nutritious, nature-friendly crops to market the better.”

The hope is that genome editing of crops will lead to increased yields, improved nutritional content of food, and increased resilience to pests and diseases.

Potential benefits to the environment from the technology could include less land being used for farming and a reduction in farm inputs such as water, fertilisers, and pesticides – as well as a reduction in overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

This is a view strongly held by genetic engineering pioneer, Prof. Johnathan Napier who said: “The UK’s bioscience sector is now open for business.

“Early benefits of gene editing for UK agriculture could include gluten-free wheat, oilseeds with heart-healthy fats, disease-resistant sugar beet and potatoes that are even healthier than those we have now.

“We can also use GE to remove unwanted genes such as allergens and toxins. It is tremendously exciting that this powerful genetic technology will now be regulated in a much more enabling manner, allowing society to benefit from its potential.”

Precision breeding involves using technologies such as gene editing to tweak the genetic code of organisms – creating traits in plants that through traditional, breeding would take decades to achieve. 

Under the provisions of the Act, a new science-based and streamlined regulatory system will remove plants produced through precision breeding technologies from regulatory requirements applicable to genetically modified organisms.  

It will also establish a new science-based authorisation process for food and feed products derived from precision bred plants.  

Rothamsted’s Prof. Nigel Halford, who is currently running Europe’s first field trial of genome edited wheat, commented:

“This is great news. It will make it much easier for us to test the low acrylamide wheat lines we are developing in the field, which is essential if we are to find out if they could be suitable for wheat breeders to use.

“The possibility of low acrylamide wheat products being available to consumers in the future has moved one step closer.”